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Screwtape’s Triumph

To mark the 10th anniversary of Tony Blair’s leadership of the Labour Party, Anthony Seldon, a political historian, presented a portrait of the Prime Minister on Channel 4. He identified the two big commitments in Tony’s life: to his wife, Cherie, and to God. The Prime Minister has a passion for social justice that derives from his Christian faith. He is described as a genuinely religious man who has thought deeply about the responsibilities of a Christian in terms of political leadership.

How, then, does this square with the war in Iraq? It squares because he believes the end justifies the means. And that is a misreading of Christianity. Tony Blair is not alone in making this mistake: many have made it before and will again. And because, sometimes, the end is achieved people allow the means to slip from their minds.

Jesus opens his ministry with a ringing declaration, taken from the prophet Isaiah.

‘The spirit of the Lord is on me,
for he has anointed me
to bring the good news to the afflicted.

He has sent me to proclaim liberty to captives,
sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim a year of favour from the Lord.’

That sounds like a political programme. It is not. As the Catholic theologian Hans Kung has written, ‘(Jesus) does not give the signal to storm the repressive structures, he does not work from either right or left for the fall of government. He waits for God to bring about the cataclysm and proclaims as already decisive the unrestricted, direct world dominion of God himself, to be awaited without violence.’ (On Being a Christian p. 187).

The end does not justify the means for two reasons. Firstly, the end may not be achieved and one is left with only the means. Secondly, even when the end is achieved, the means remain as part of that end. Case 1: The Intelligence agency tortures the prisoner to elicit information. They get nothing useful. There is only the torture. Case 2: The Intelligence agency tortures the prisoner to get information. They are told of an arms cache. They get the arms, but the torture has not gone away.

The removal of Sadam Hussein from power is not a justification for killing anyone. In fact, going to war in Iraq helps justify the terrorists’ use of force. How can you say with a straight face, My killing is justified because it is for a good Christian end; your killing is not justified because it is to promote Islamic fundamentalism?

I do not argue against resisting evil actions, but with moral, not physical force. Gandhi and Martin Luther King are the leaders who most convincingly apply the teachings of Jesus to the social and political spheres. They, like Jesus, do not hesitate to criticise those who wield power ruthlessly. But they do not call for the violent overthrow of such tyrants. Their call is to service and to dialogue, so that there is always the possibility that the tyrant’s heart will be touched. Do not resist the evildoer, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse, pray for those who persecute.

To bring about the transformation of an evil situation we have to take the suffering on ourselves. And we have to use our imaginations. One of the great things about Gandhi was his inventiveness. Who else would have realised that the making of salt from seawater could be such a threat to the British occupiers? We also have to have moral authority. Then we can ask protesters to march, unarmed, on a salt works defended by armed troops. And when these protesters were beaten to the ground then the British, as an American reporter declared, lost all moral authority, just as any moral authority the occupying forces had in Iraq was undermined by the torture of prisoners.

This raises the question, Is it possible to be a politician and true to the teachings of Christ? I cannot say that it is totally impossible but it is certainly extremely difficult.

The Gospel requires an unswerving commitment to truth. That does not accord with secrecy. In their resistance to transparency and openness governments show themselves willing to trade in limited truth when it suits them. ‘I did not tell a lie’, claims the politician. No, but neither did you tell the whole truth.

To progress as a politician requires a certain ruthlessness. You cannot get to the top except on the backs of others. Again you claim that the end justifies the means. Maybe it does. But not in terms of Christian values.

Tony Blair may or may not be a good Prime Minister. Compared with his predecessors he may well be. I am sure he is sincere in religious and spiritual commitment. He is not, however a good advertisement for Christianity. He is one of Screwtape’s triumphs.

June 2004

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